About one year ago, I learned that a six year old girl, Elena, living in the school district where I teach, had been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor. Her family has been keeping a journal of her experiences on a web page, and I found myself drawn to reading about her courage, faith and love along with the hard to imagine experiences she and her family were going through due to her disease and treatment. I found myself consumed with thoughts about my own life, family and set of beliefs.
Since my days in college, I have believed that, in the words of the poet Joseph Magner, “we are the arms of the armless God.” We have to be the ones to embrace others, to help them, and to not rely on God to do it. But what could I do to help Elena? I had my daughters, three and nine years old at the time, make and send Elena Christmas cards, even though they never met. Send cards? Is that all? Elena had a wish list of things she would like to do while she had time, like shop for a wedding dress or see a whale. I felt like I couldn’t fulfill any of those wishes.
I have realized that it is not that my arms are very short, but that they have been tied. My arms have been tied either by some cosmic giant or by my own humanness. A friend once told me about an autistic girl bound to a wheelchair who communicated to my friend through her electronic keyboard the following questions: “Wheelchair- why me?” followed by “Why not you?” Exactly. Why not me? Why, instead, a completely innocent six year old like Elena? I bet many parents with a child in Elena’s situation would be willing to switch places with their child, to take on that burden and to die, to let their girl grow up and shop for wedding dresses when it is her time. But Elena’s parents were not given that choice. In this way, their arms were also tied.
I worked in a lab at Children’s Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio, for a few years, and I heard the head of pediatric oncology at the time say on occasion, “We have to get smarter, faster.” I now teach high school science, and I wonder if what I do is really helping? Are we helping any future oncologists or researchers get smart enough, soon enough? Some say we teach science a mile wide and an inch deep, and that we should teach fewer subjects but with more depth. Perhaps. But do they realize that science, especially biomedical science, is ten miles wide and ten miles deep, and getting wider and deeper every day? Perhaps we need to start focusing on those students that can handle a curriculum written for a topic that is wider and deeper than anyone can see when standing on shore. Perhaps the Advanced Placement program has started this, where high school students can get a college level exposure to biology while in high school. Eventually, colleges and universities could expect incoming science students to have already taken AP biology, chemistry and physics, and to take what are now sophomore level science courses as freshman. To me, this would be getting smarter, faster.
Elena has since died. Teaching AP biology and looking toward the future does very little in helping my arms grow today. Even if my arms have grown a little, they still feel tied. If there is a God, then I have no reason to believe that it has either arms or ears. This I do believe: if there is a God, then we are its arms. If there is no God, then we need to reach out as if we are the arms of the armless God. And we need to get smarter, faster.
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